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Carlene O’Neil writes about “Gathering Acorns”

Carlene O’Neil is the author of the Cypress Cove Mystery series of cozies. This is her debut post for the Blackbird Writers. You can find out more about her on her website, or by clicking here and buy her books here.

“My sister’s having babies. She married the guy she lost her virginity to. I’m glad she’s having babies. Now I can breathe a little.”

I listen to these few sentences, pure gold to an author. I move closer to hear better. So does half the coffee shop, but the speaker’s done. I’m disappointed, wanting more. Then, before I forget her words, I write them down. I move the words around, fleshing out the speaker. I know she’s somewhere in the coffee shop, but I don’t try to find her. I don’t need to. In my mind she’ll be the one on her phone, sporting spiky dark hair and bright red lipstick. She doesn’t care that her voice carries, pulling in the rest of the diners.

Her sister, the one having babies, also intrigues me. If she were there she would be mortified at her sister’s words. She will be prone to matching sweater sets and French braids, but I don’t have a place for her now. I tuck her away in my notebook for later use. When it comes to my notebook, I don’t judge and I don’t edit. A phrase. A look. Some different setting. It all gets written down, waiting for later. Waiting to be used.

When gathering ideas, authors are like squirrels. We hear a snippet of conversation or a phrase, or perhaps see something or someone, and it stays with us. We snap it up and work away at it, roll it around a bit, wonder if there’s something really there. Why is she glad her sister’s the one having babies? Why can she breathe now? And what about the sister? Is she glad to be the one having babies, or does she yearn for the freedom her sister has?

We are on a constant search for ideas. They can come from anywhere. It’s a story from a movie or the news. A documentary or fable. Overheard snippets in a coffee shop, my favorite. It’s something from a book, or a dream you’ve had. It’s the mundane with a twist; the verdict that left you wondering, the conclusion you didn’t see coming. Often we have no idea where the ideas come from.

Then, unless we use an idea right away, we stash it. The methods vary but the purpose is the same. A file on the computer, a spreadsheet, a simple box where you toss copies of news stories to be re-read in the future. Later, when the ideas don’t come, when the cold spell sets in and we are convinced we aren’t going to find anything worth writing about ever again, we go back and dig out some obscure article, or conversation, or image, something that didn’t quite let us go, and we start again. Of course, we face the same dilemma squirrels do: many of the nuts we’ve buried for future use are lost to us, never to be found again. They don’t quite work out, or don’t really trigger any solid ideas, instead leaving us to ponder why did this piece captured our interest in the first place.

I recently read that squirrels are responsible for the majority of new tress that grow in our forests. They bury nuts and then forget where they are, or just never get around to finding them. That works in the writing process as well. It doesn’t matter what you use, or what you leave behind. A notebook is a roadmap of sorts, leading us back to something that held our attention long enough to write it down.

Who knows where it will lead?

Carlene O'Neil

You can find out more about her on her website,, or follow her on Facebook.

This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I’m always collecting goodies and forgetting to use them. I’ve got so many files with stuff like that hanging around all over. Oh well.

  2. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    Great post, Carlene. I try to keep a notebook, then I end up with more than one notebook, or I scribble in the margin of a notebook dedicated to another topic. Aargh! So hard to keep up with where I stored my nuts! 🙂 I really enjoyed your post and now have a new image for when I’m scurrying around looking for that thing I jotted down before. LOL

    1. Carlene O'Neil
      Carlene O'Neil

      I have notebooks in several different places. Now I need to go through and condense them. A rainy day chore.

  3. Avatar

    So beautifully expressed. Now I want to read about one of the ideas you’ve squirreled away.

  4. joyribar

    I love your example of “overheard in the coffee shop.” Some of the best nuggets are ones from real life conversations. The important part is to gather those acorns and write them down as they roll under our feet, before they’re gone. Great post, Carlene.

  5. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    I love this. It’s so what we do. I have often sat in an airport, waiting to board a plane and listened to the chat going on around me. Of course, these days it’s mostly a one-sided conversation over the phone. Or worse, texting, so I can’t glean those acorns!

    1. Carlene O'Neil
      Carlene O'Neil

      Airports are the best. Those final conversations before people depart.

  6. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Great post. I have a lot of files with ideas, snippets of poems I write, notes about art, and so on. Tossing everything into a big basket and then drawing out 5 things and making a story out of it would make a great game for writing group meetings. Welcome aboard the Blackbirds!

    1. Carlene O'Neil
      Carlene O'Neil

      I love that idea! I will let you know what I come up with.

  7. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    So true – how many remarkable dialogues have I overheard and planned to weave into a story that disappeared when I tried remembering what my notes meant? Still, we all have to keep gathering those acorns!

    1. Carlene O'Neil
      Carlene O'Neil

      Amazing, the things people say when they think no one is listening!

  8. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    I love your squirrels and acorns metaphor, especially how some of those acorns sprout trees! So, who knows where I ideas may end up? Maybe we will plant ideas indirectly in others, who find them someday. Welcome to the Blackbird flock, Carlene!

  9. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    Nice post. You can overhear some wonderful things in the coffee shop or the grocery store. I try to keep them in a computer file and then forget I have them.

  10. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Carlene — Welcome to the Blackbirds! I enjoyed reading this relatable post. Like you, I collect “snippets” of conversations and either use them immediately, or file them away for a later date. 

    1. Carlene O'Neil
      Carlene O'Neil

      You can always spot us, the curious ones leaning out of the booth!

  11. tracey64p

    I love this analogy, Carlene! Welcome to the flock!

      1. tracey64p

        I tend to keep notes too, but I never thought to keep track of what I overheard!

  12. Avatar
    Laurie’s Story

    I love the “authors as squirrels” analogy. Leave it to you, Carlene, to come up with something so thoughtful and appropriate. Glad to see you are a fellow Blackbird!

  13. Valerie Biel
    Valerie Biel

    Overhearing conversations like this are the best! I have so many bits and pieces like this all over the place. Ha — acorns indeed! Great post!

  14. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I love listening in on conversations, especially from college students! They provide pure gold acorns!

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